Scandal -- some lessons from history

Maybe we can pin the blame on global warming. More likely it’s the inevitable derivative of the humoungous financial stakes that have developed in the games we play. After all, billions of bucks roll daily with the flip of the ball, the swing of a bat, the launching of a jumper, the rattle of a slapshot. Where did it all go wrong? Probably when games ceased to be mere sport and suddenly blossomed into what they call “an industry”.

Blame television. Blame steroids. Blame agents. Blame wanton athletes. Blame Bush. But keep in mind that there has always been corruption in the fun and games world. Boxing, baseball, and horse racing -- the three biggest organized sports venues at the time -- were veritable cesspools a century ago. The gravest sporting scandal of all-time -- the Black Sox tanking of the 1919 World Series --shook the establishment to its roots long before anyone ever conceived of the NFL, the NBA, television, agents, performance enhancing drugs, or even the city of Las Vegas.

There is nothing new about there being cads on the bench and cheats in the lineup or crooks in the wings and, while I have no proof, I’d be willing to bet the ranch that Tim Donaghy is not the first game-official to have played fast and loose with the point spread. He appears, however, to have been the first to get caught, which is fairly amazing.

The last year or so has been a mess for the kingdom of sport. You’ve had the drug scandal sapping baseball of its cultural glory. You’ve had a parade of NFL performers -- several of them noteworthy -- being hauled before the bar like common hoods. Rumor persists that soon after he becomes home run champ Barry Bonds will get indicted by the Feds on a tax rap. Two heavyweight champs of recent vintage have been in trouble with the law. A wrestler of alleged stature kills his wife and son in a rage fueled by steroids.

Hardly a day goes by without another blight on the blotter. Yesterday it was a Florida State cornerback getting nabbed for breaking and entering. Today it’s a Florida Marlins pitcher being tossed in jail for slugging a cop. It soon becomes routine. When the gendarmes stop your home-team point-guard driving 30 miles over the speed limit at 4 A.M. and discover a couple of loaded firearms under the front seat, few so much as blink.

And then you become oblivious to it all. Where is the moral outrage over Michael Vick’s unconscionable moonlighting in the sadistic world of dogfighting? The 18 page indictment of Vick cites 51 violations by the fleet Atlanta QB including the charge that he was involved in the killing of “unfit” animals by hanging, drowning, and slamming them to the ground.

Hey, it’s just Michael being Michael, as they say. You gotta be a tough cookie. Pro football ain’t a game for sissies. What do you expect him to have for a hobby? Bridge! If he can stay out of the slammer and he’s got a million dollar lawyer striving mightily to accomplish that, Michael Vick will be back dodging the pass rush like a matador come October and the adoring legions of the National Football League will love him more than ever. We are the enablers, you know.

But this basketball fiasco springing from the apparent duplicity of a little known NBA referee may just be another matter. If it takes off and a couple of more shoes drop and the web expands -- all of which seem entirely possible early on -- it could be the sporting equivalent of “the Big One”, a seismic blockbuster that could destroy pro-basketball and rattle every cage in the “industry”. Someone called it ‘the nightmare scenario’ and that nails it perfectly. For pro-basketball it could bring about a nuclear winter. And if it spreads into the college game, which some are already predicting, it will be like a brushfire gone wild and it may not stop at the borders of basketball.

Over the many years, no game -- save perhaps boxing -- has been more tainted by corruption than basketball, although until now most of the indiscretions have been linked with the college game. The scandals of the early ‘50s were monumental. Several NCAA and NIT championship teams including Kentucky, CCNY, Bradley, St, John’s, and Long Island were compromised. Fine universities were humiliated. Great reputations were ruined. Careers were smashed. And the pity of it was that most of the kids who were on the take sold out to the wise guys for mere pennies.

It was a great story that featured spectacular characters. One thinks of Jack Molinas, a fabulous player and student at Columbia, who became the Fagan of the Fixers. Molinas was a man of tremendous abilities, both on and off the court. But he didn’t have a moral bone in his body. Then there was Nat Holman, one of the game’s true patriarchs. His 1950 City College of New York (CCNY) team was the runaway national champion; winners of both the NCAA and the NIT, which was then even bigger. It was the first great, black-dominated, sports team in this nation’s history and most of the players were in the tank. It was a tragedy and it crushed Holman.

Interestingly, the last big college basketball scandal featured the 1978-79 Boston College team, and it was very nasty. Three of the most celebrated hoop scholars in BC history were implicated in the fix and subsequently ruined for life. Many BC officials had trouble accepting the enormity of the crime, preferring to blame the media. Bitterness lingered for years. It was especially nasty in that the fixers were the very same major league New York mobsters led by the nefarious Henry Hill who became immortalized in the movie, “Goodfellas”. These were very serious hoodlums that the BC kids were playing money games with.

Which merely underscores the salient point that these scandals are not trifling and go well beyond the relatively minor consideration of whether some suckers gets duped out of ten dollar wagers because some teenage point-guard elects to purposely throw the ball away at a critical juncture. It’s much deeper than that. We are talking major criminal activity here that is invariably ‘well-connected’, as they say.

That another such scandal is brewing is not surprising. Basketball has always been especially vulnerable. It’s the easiest game to monkey with and has always been the pet of the wise guys. Veteran observers of the scene are only surprised that it’s not college basketball that’s on the griddle. There’s long been the fear that the skyrocketing influence of money in the college game dramatized in the tidal wave of gambling dough that engulfs the N.C.A.A Tourney would -- sooner or later -- lead somebody down the garden path. Instead, it’s the Pros. Makes sense on some philosophical level. The invasion of money to degrees that are downright filthy long ago turned the NBA into a sadly jaded enterprise.

So we’ll see where it leads and watch that process with extraordinary interest. It needs to be noted that Referee Donaghy -- the suspected point-shaver -- has been convicted so far of nothing, nor has he publicly confessed to anything. But he was quick to resign his post and hire a big-time lawyer and the circumstantial evidence is building by the hour. More telling, in his initial comments NBA Czar David Stern -- himself a high-priced lawyer -- practically condemned Donaghy. Rumors persist that Donaghy is prepared to become a “whistle blower” of another sort. The New York Daily News reports that he’s prepared to “name names”, including “players”.

Wow! Does one sense the lid is about to be blown off, sky-high? Who would trade places with Czar Stern? Stay tuned!

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